Lebanon is currently facing the most serious intensification of its political crisis since 2005, when the ‘Cedar Revolution’ brought about an end to Syrian military presence in the country. The UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), established in June 2007 to investigate the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is the primary source of this crisis and the main point of contention between the March 8 and 14 political factions, which emerged in the aftermath of the assassination.

The pro-Syrian March 8 forces, which include the Shia organization Hezbollah as well as the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), oppose the STL’s work and have attempted to discredit it as an ‘Israeli project’. The latter accusation has been lodged mainly by Hezbollah, which has been angered by the STL prosecutor’s alleged intention to indict members of Hezbollah in connection with the Hariri assassination.

The anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, which include the Sunni Future Movement, the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) and Kataeb, support the STL and its mission to prosecute Rafik Hariri’s murderers. Although the March 14 bloc generally stands behind the STL, it is Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement and son of the assassinated Prime Minister, as well as the Sunni community more broadly, which have a particular interest in ensuring the tribunal’s success.

For Saad Hariri, support for the tribunal serves personal as well as political interests. Clearly, on a personal level, the younger Hariri desires to bring his father’s murderers to justice. On a political-level, however, Saad Hariri also has substantial incentives for supporting the tribunal’s work. For Saad’s Sunni base, the assassination of his father represented an attack on the community-at-large. Consequently, in the aftermath of the event, the majority of Sunnis rallied behind Saad and the Future Movement, which was established by Rafik Hariri and which retained his political ideas. As a result of the assassination, the Sunni community also began to view Syria, which was allegedly responsible for Hariri’s murder, as well as its Lebanese allies, including Hezbollah, as its enemies and came to oppose pro-Syrian politicians and political forces. As such, for the political survival and power of both the Future Movement and Saad Hariri, holding up Rafik Hariri as a martyr and supporting the STL’s work have become politically expedient.

Since 2005, there have been a number of political confrontations between the March 8 and March 14 factions, which in addition to highlighting the deep differences between the political camps, have had sectarian implications and have even lead to clashes between religious sects. The Sunni community has interpreted various events, including the March 8 coalition sit-in following the controversial cabinet vote on the STL, as Shia-led provocations targeting the Sunni community. Unsurprisingly, sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunni increased, escalating into armed clashes in May 2008. While the 2008 Doha Agreement temporarily diffused the crisis, the negotiated compromise neither solved the STL issue nor eased sectarian tensions.

The political fallout for Saad Hariri was particularly enormous, as he received huge criticism for failing to defend his community during the events of May 2008. In the years since then, criticisms of Saad Hariri have only increased. In particular, he stands accused of, on the one hand, attempting to satisfy his supporters by bringing the Hariri murderers to justice while, on the other hand, trying to appease the Syrians and Hezbollah, his father’s alleged murderers and ‘enemies’ of the community. The collapse of Saad Hariri’s government on January 12, 2011 seemed to demonstrate the failure of this strategy.

Despite his fall from grace, for many, Saad Hariri remains the undisputed leader of Lebanon’s Sunni community. In order to understand the political views of Lebanon’s young Sunnis as well as the extent of their support for Hariri, I conducted interviews with young Sunni activists from the Future Youth, the Future Movement’s youth organization, at the campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB), as well as with Sunni activists from the Students at Work, the AUB electoral list formed by March 14’s youth organizations for purposes of the annual AUB Students’ Representative Council elections.[1] While interviews were largely conducted before the January 12 government collapse, additional research took place after this date, yielding interesting results.

Rafik Hariri’s ‘Martyrdom’

According to these interviews, Rafik Hariri continues to play a significant role in the political thinking of young supporters of the Future Movement. Nonetheless, for these young devotees, attendance at the annual commemoration of Hariri’s assassination seems to be more an emotional act than a political one. Many of the interviewed activists, who describe themselves as growing up under the influence of Hariri’s ideals, idolize the Prime Minister, holding him up as an ‘inspiration’ and a reason to join politics. As such, their views on the STL are unsurprising – for them, the tribunal must be supported in order to avenge the assassination of their ‘martyr’-leader. For many, this support seems virtually unconditional – when asked whether they would still favor the STL if Sunni individuals or organizations were indicted, many respondents indicated that their support would remain unchanged. Though some respondents were admittedly skeptical of the purported culpability of Sunni officials, such as Wissam al-Hassan, a close adviser of both Rafik and Saad Hariri who is alleged to have been involved in the murder of the older Hariri, they seemed aware that large parts of the Sunni community support the STL unconditionally and that any attempt to abandon the institution would not be tolerated.

Respondents, however, provided even more interesting responses when asked to speculate about what would happen in Lebanon if the STL issued indictments against Hezbollah members. Most of the interviewed activists predicted that Hezbollah would likely react militarily, as it did in May 2008. While such a response could conceivably lead to civil war, some respondents stated that this outcome would be unlikely as Hezbollah’s allies, the Shia Amal-Movement and the FPM, would be disinclined to join in such actions and, additionally, that there would simply be nobody to respond to Hezbollah. These views about the potential fallout from an STL indictment coincide with perceptions about the threats facing the Sunni community. In the view of many respondents, Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and even Iran are currently the biggest threats to Lebanon’s Sunnis. Again, such opinions are unsurprising as they reflect the current rivalry between Sunnis and Shias, as well as the Sunni fear of once again becoming the victim of so-called anti-Sunni Shia actions. The collapse of Saad Hariri’s government and the subsequent gatherings of Hezbollah and Amal members in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods have been seen by many young Sunni activists as substantiating these perceived fears.

Criticism of Saad Hariri

The interviewed activists proved to be more reflective and critical in their opinion and evaluation of Saad Hariri than expected. In general, the activists appear to consider Saad Hariri as less strong of a leader compared with his father. Regarding the ‘false witnesses’-issue[2] the activists insisted that Hariri should have worked to further clarify the issue so as to deprive the March 8 coalition of yet another point of attack in the STL debate. The activists also expressed disappointment with Hariri for being insufficiently firm towards March 8 when defending his community’s interests while also failing to mobilize new supporters for his movement. As one activist stated, the people are tired of the ‘blood-of-the-martyrs’ slogans, which are used to sustain the memory of Rafik Hariri and other victims of political assassinations from 2005 to 2008. When asked about Saad Hariri’s positions towards the STL, the activists expressed doubt as to his continued support for the tribunal in the face of mounting pressure from March 8.

The State of the Community

By and large, interviewed activists had a negative perception of the Sunni community’s current situation. Although the so-called ‘Cedar Revolution’ brought political empowerment to Sunnis, their situation has since deteriorated. For these activists, the clashes of May 2008 and the government collapse of January 12, 2011 were pivotal in cementing the decline of Sunni political power in Lebanon.

According to Wissam Akra, president and coordinator of Future Youth at AUB, the clashes of May 2008 caused fear amongst Sunnis by demonstrating the greater military and street power held by the Shia. As a result of these fears, Sunnis shied away from some of their previous political demands.

For the young Sunni activists, the government collapse of January 12, 2011 solidified the political weakness of the Sunnis. The collapse of the government and the subsequent plans of March 8 to form a new governing body without Saad Hariri’s support proved to these activists that Sunni political power had reached a low ebb.

The events of January 12 also lead to a significant shift in political opinions about some Sunni politicians. Whereas, before January 12, respondents held mostly negative opinions on non-Sunni politicians, Omar Karame and Tripoli MP Najib Mikati, both prominent Sunni politicians, were viewed respectively in an indifferent and positive light. Regarding the post of prime minister, which according to Lebanon’s confessional political system must be held by a Sunni, Mikati was even named as a realistic and positive alternative to Saad Hariri. After January 12, however, these perspectives changed. When Hezbollah appointed Najib Mikati as its candidate for the post of prime minister, respondents spoke of Mikati, who had won his parliamentary seat as a member of the Future Movement electoral list, as a ‘traitor’ and ‘puppet of Hezbollah’.


Interviews with Lebanon’s young Sunni activists have revealed that Saad Hariri’s position as leader of the Sunni community is at a cross road. With his power having mainly been based on his fathers’ ‘martyrdom’ rather than on his own skills as a politician, the January 12 government collapse dealt a significant blow to his political prospects. In a speech on February 14, 2011 Saad Hariri made it clear that he was now a member of the opposition. He has, nonetheless, managed to tread water and retain the same levels of popularity amongst his supporters. Since the once well-liked Najib Mikati is now viewed as a traitor, Hariri may in fact be in a position to gain more sympathy amongst Sunnis and thereby expand his power.

Sunni youth interpreted the government collapse of January 12, which was caused by the resignation of ten March 8 coalition members and one independent minister, as an anti-Sunni action taken by Hezbollah. The crisis over the formation of a new government has, however, marked a decisive turning point in the political thinking of Sunnis. Now, their political platform no longer center upon the STL, but rather has come to include more general demands about government and the just representation of Sunnis. As soon as it became clear that Najib Mikati would become the new prime minister, Sunni activists took to the streets of Beirut and Tripoli to demand their rights, mirroring the so-called ‘Days of Rage’ taking place across the Arab World. Violent clashes between protesters and the army as well as attacks against journalists demonstrate that the possibility for civil strife and sectarian clashes is a constant reality for and imminent risk to the country’s political system. Though the “Lebanese street” has since simmered down and is currently dominated by peaceful demonstrations by the anti-sectarian movement, an STL indictment could again lead to violence and, in the worst case scenario, to clashes similar to those that rocked the country in May 2008.

[1] This research was conducted for the Middle East Office of the Henreich Boll Foundation and will be published by the Foundation in a paper entitled ‘Today’s Youth is tomorrow’s Future!’ Lebanese Politics in the Eyes of young Sunni activists.

[2] This is a controversy about witnesses interrogated by UN investigators who gave questionable testimony about Syrian involvement in the assassination. Saad Hariri and March 14 officials allegedly pushed these witnesses to give these “false testimonies” regarding Syrian officials.

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